The Seaweed Saga

The Seaweed Saga

As a working director the holiday period was an opportunity to read interesting articles. Today I offer for consideration an article that appeared in the AFR on 29 December, 2020 titled ‘Seaweed farmers crack the code for greener cows’, by Brad Thompson.

To quote from this article:

“After years of development and hype over the benefits of feeding seaweed to livestock, Australia is set to have more eco-friendly, faster-growing cattle by next Christmas.

Led by Sea Forest in Tasmania, seaweed farmers hope to produce the world’s first commercial-size crops of asparagopsis – the seaweed found by CSIRO researchers to slash methane emissions from cattle in the form of burps and farts when added to their feed.”

The basic idea is that:

  • Methane from livestock produces about 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions and 10% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions.
  • Aspasagopsis species of seaweed produces bromoform, which prevents methane forming during digestion.
  • CSIRO trials show small amounts of aspasagopsis concentrate added to feed can reduce methane by more than 80% and make the animals also grow faster because of more efficient digestion.

The article goes onto say that FutureFeed, the licence distribution company formed by CSIRO and now backed by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, is working on the equation that it will take about 1,000 hectares of farmed seaweed to feed one million cattle. (Note: There are 23.5 million head of cattle in Australia at last count).
‘FutureFeed chief executive Andrew Gatenby said Sea Forest was the most advanced of the emerging players and expected to have commercial volumes available in the Australian market towards the end of 2021.

Mr Gatenby said FutureFeed, co-owned by the CSIRO, Mr Forrest’s private company Tattarang, Woolworths, GrainCorp and AGP Sustainable Real Assets-Sparklabs Cultiv8, was working on approvals from food regulators in the US, Europe and other jurisdictions.’

Here you have it - Australia reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% by changing stock feed. The obvious problem is how to manage pastured animals? – but that is for another day.

Is this all too good to be true?  What are the problems to be overcome?

WOB ‘phoned a friend’

WOB phoned our resident expert Dr Ian Noble. His answer was as follows:

“The Asparagopsis ’solution’ has been around for a while and there are a number of research efforts across the world focussed on it.  I did a quick run of the numbers and get an estimate of about 75,000 t/day needed to treat all the world’s 1.5B cattle - maybe a bit more if the active ingredient, bromoform, is less concentrated in cultivated sea weed.  The research teams growing the alga are keeping quiet about their growth rates, but using some rough algal growth rates I think we would need a few 1,000s km2 of algal farms to provide what is needed.  Maybe less if it can be encouraged to grow very fast - but at what chemical and energy cost?  But in that case could it be synthesised for less?  Then there is the problem of getting it into the feed of all cattle.

Not easy, but not impossible to grow/make enough to make some difference.  Also, Barramundi cook and taste better if fed some.  I suspect that Asparagopsis, or a close relative, is used in a raw fish dish across the Pacific.  It certainly tasted good.”

Would you join the board of FutureFeed?